Golden Globes Nominations

Actor Kevin Spacey portrays President Frank Underwood in the highly popular Netflix series “House of Cards”. (AP Photo/Netflix, Nathaniel E. Bell)

By Rick Newman
March 5, 2015

Frank Underwood, the fictional president played by Kevin Spacey on the Netflix series “House of Cards,” is a murderous villain who’s more Machiavellian than any real president in recent history.

He’s also a model of political courage, compared with modern politicians.

In season 3, in the midst of a recession, with unemployment soaring and his approval rating sinking, Underwood goes on TV to tell the American people this:

The American Dream has failed you. Work hard. Play by the rules. You aren’t guaranteed success. Your children will not have a better life than you did…. We’ve been crippled by Social Security. By Medicare. Medicaid. Welfare. And entitlements. And that is the root of the problem. Entitlements. Let me be clear: You are entitled to nothing. You. Are entitled. To nothing.

Underwood goes on to explain, somewhat ham-handedly, that he can reveal this awful truth because he has decided not to run for re-election, and therefore doesn’t need to pander to voters with syrupy lies. Knowing the nefarious Frank, he’s probably got something more sinister in mind. Yet Spacey and the show’s observant writers have nonetheless fingered what is perhaps the most egregious failure of government today: Politicians continually promising more than Washington is ever going to deliver.

This matters more than it used to because our economic problems are more pernicious now than they were in the 20th century. Even in the midst of an impressive job-market recovery, incomes remain depressed, since a lot of new jobs pay less than jobs lost during the last decade. Income inequality is near record levels, with the rich getting richer and the rest falling behind. The American middle class literally seems to be shrinking, and Washington’s massive debt load means the government is more likely to cut aid to those who need it than to offer more help.

Virtually everybody in Washington—no matter which political party—agrees that government spending on Social Security, Medicare and other entitlements will have to be curtailed as the U.S. population ages and such spending gobbles up an increasing portion of the federal budget. But try finding a politician who will say that publicly.

President Obama nibbled at the theme of “personal responsibility” in both inaugural speeches (in 2009 and 2013), but he also clearly believes Americans are entitled to a lot more than nothing. Obama routinely touts proposals to hike the minimum wage, use government funds for job training and boost tax credits for lower-income workers. In this year’s State of the Union address, for instance, Obama said:

We need to set our sights higher than just making sure government doesn’t screw things up; that government doesn’t halt the progress we’re making. We need to do more than just do no harm. Tonight, together, let’s do more to restore the link between hard work and growing opportunity for every American.

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